Lefting and then righting/ It’s not a crime, you know. That line from “Are You Ready for the Country?” could be the motto for Neil Young’s career, which has seen him swing from denunciations of Richard Nixon to admiration for Ronald Reagan, from swipes at anti-choice jihadis to salutes to the Patriot Act. On his upcoming record Living With War, Neil is lefting with a vengeance, and the chance to take a few shots at George W. Bush has been a tonic for his songwriting, judging from the lyrics filtering out via his web site.
It’s also encouraged him to maintain a higher profile than he’s done in years — now Neil’s even got a blog. And check out the video of the man calling for impeachment of the Liar/Leaker/Loony/Lackey in Chief.
For a hint of the reaction that’s in store for Living With War, here’s a guest post at Andrew Sullivan’s site that no doubt presages a massive wave of wankery to come. Walter Kirn harrumphs that while he’s a Neil Young fan, he isn’t sure he wants to hear the new release because “his musical protests this time will come with a stamp of cultural approval and a solid-gold provenance that will make them too respectable, I fear.”
“Too respectable, I fear” — I love it when mass-media pundits adopt that more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger pose. Especially when it’s accompanied by cultural amnesia. When Neil wrote his earliest political songs — e.g., “Ohio,” “Southern Man,” “Campaigner” — he was a superstar whose concerts drew crowds that filled stadiums and whose records scaled the upper reaches of the charts. While Young’s status as a classic rock icon is unassailable, he doesn’t have anything like the commercial clout he used to enjoy, and raising his voice against the Boy Who Would Be Emperor will only open him up to the kind of relentless slime attack endured by the Dixie Chicks. How long will it take before Sean Hannity and the other professional smoke-blowers at Fox News announce they never really liked Rust Never Sleeps anyway? How long before Bay Area head case Michael Savage starts talking about Young’s kids?
Whatever crap comes down, we can take pleasure in the knowledge that lefting brings out the best in Neil’s work. The most famous songs from the seventies, like “Ohio,” still burn with enough intensity to hold nostalgia at bay, but even obscurities like “Ambulance Blues” (I never knew a man / who could tell so many lies / He had a different story / for every set of eyes) can surprise you with cutting turns of phrase. And he’s generous in victory: after Nixon resigned in disgrace, it was Neil Young who stepped up and reminded everyone that even Richard Nixon had soul. (Where he put it was another matter.) Compare that with the blowsiness of Old Ways and the other eighties misfires from his Republican makeover period.
A few years ago, Dave Marsh and the professional moralizers at Rock and Rap Confidential denounced Young for saying he had no problems with the Patriot Act. I was disturbed by that as well, but one of the charming things about Neil is that no matter how wrong-headed he gets, he eventually straightens himself out. Young wasn’t the only one to lose his bearings in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, but unlike the ideological opportunists who continue to milk that disaster for political and financial gain, Neil Young understands that some of America’s worst enemies are the ones who yell the loudest about patriotism. It’s got him in the mood to get loud again himself, and I for one can’t wait to hear the results.